Classic Doctor Who - The Masque Of Mandragora

Season 14 - September 1976

‘They say there are places where the bat droppings are as high as a man’

That'll be San Marco, then.

It’s the opening story of Season 14 and, my, the times, they are a‘changing. Holmes and Hinchcliffe really set out their store from this point on. The title sequences get a new font (no more early 70s big blocky lettering) and they go for a romantic looking serif. And we get a mini-tour of the TARDIS in the opening episode that eventually leads us to the secondary control room. This is an emphatic statement by the production team that they are intent on moving the show firmly into Byronic gothic romance mode and the wood panelled room, with its totems of the past that include Pertwee’s dusty shirt and Troughton’s recorder, is their framing structure for the season as a whole. It’s a campaign that climaxes in the Holmes/Hinchcliffe story par excellence ‘Talons Of Weng-Chiang’.

Masque has a lot going for it. It looks sumptuous with really ambitious costuming and sets and the script is literary and intelligent. But somehow it all seems a bit flat. The opening episode doesn’t really get going until the TARDIS arrives in San Marco and the Helix energy escapes into the countryside (some smashing location filming at Portmeirion). The sequences showing the Helix attacking various peasants and soldiers are very well done, particularly in the shot of the Helix cresting across a pond there is a well handled mix of location film and in-laid video effects.

The Brotherhood of Demnos are well realised with their golden masks and cowls and the scenes in the temple are very moody and effective. The lighting on the entire serial is superb, mainly dark areas penetrated with slivers of light and some very Giorgio De Chirico like archways with light streaming out of them fit very well with the Mediterranean feel of the story.

One of the things I really enjoyed about this was the very tangible sense of time passing. It’s very clear that the Doctor and Sarah spend several days in San Marco, daylight is seen to give way to darkness rather than it seeming to be a vague place where time does not seem to affect the proceedings. It gives the story a real sense of time and place as does the number of scenes where characters are attending to their daily rituals – the Doctor and Sarah having breakfast, Count Federico being shaved by his servant. It’s a heightened reality that makes sense within the elaborate costumes and sets. Again, you could put that down to the BBC’s skill at handling period dramas and that certainly shows here.

The performances are almost suffocated by the surroundings. This may be why it feels flat. Tom and Lis are great but I did sense that even despite their best efforts their impression on the story was of a lesser effectiveness. Lis is very much the focus of the two, again playing a little too much of the ‘victim’ but also holding her own and particularly delightful in the masque sequence.

Norman Jones’ as Hieronymous and Jon Laurimore as Count Federico were both having a contest as to who could chew through the scenery fast enough judging by Jones’ almost….Shatner….like…pauses and Laurimore’s rolling ‘rs’. However, a production like this needed bigger performances to bring it all off and they are all variable at best here.

Overall though, the story is more about a triumph of the themes it discusses than the trappings and the manner in which it is played. The story is as much about the juxtaposition of science and magic, rationalism and superstition as it is about what Doctor Who itself should be about. It’s very much about a humanist central character adrift in a society that is not of his making where the very ideas that he represents are under threat by the forces at large within that society. The fact that he actually heightens that threat by bringing an alien energy being along for the ride is not as important as the real historical debate that’s going on.

The Helix is astral energy and very much fits into Hieronymous’ world view and he doesn’t use his astrology as magical mumbo-jumbo, he uses it as a psychological profiling tool, a typology of human nature as a basic understanding to the political machinations going on at Court. When he’s possessed by the Helix he obviously sees this small scale battle between science and superstition and the dominance of ideas on a universal scale. He can see how the Helix will help him selfishly stifle mankind’s capacity to make conceptual leaps and use imagination as a tool.

In the end, the story is about how imagination can be snuffed out at the local and universal levels by those who wish to keep it in check for their own purposes. With it unchecked, human beings are more than capable of understanding the magic/science connection and this is signified by the final masque where the dance symbolises a humanitarian and creative solution to bringing together the rather chaotic threads of the Dark Ages and to order them on a cosmic as well as personal level. If Juliano hadn’t managed to get his guests to San Marco and dancing at the court then the Helix and Hieronymous would certainly have won on an intellectual level.

Oh, and one last thing. Mandragora is the Greek name for the mandrake root. It has a soporific effect rather like an anaesthetic. So you see, the Mandragora Helix energy was, by its very nature, all about putting out that spark of creativity on a cosmic scale.


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